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Build Personal Development Time Into Your Week: 99 Ways Workshop #85 (TESTHEAD)

On September 19, 2013, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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 The Software Testing Club recently put out an eBook called “99 Things You Can Do to Become a Better Tester“. Some of them are really general and vague. Some of them are remarkably specific.

My goal for the next few weeks is to take the “99 Things” book and see if I can put my own personal spin on each of them, and make a personal workshop out of each of the suggestions.

Suggestion #85: Build personal development time into your week – 5-10% or approximately half a day a week sharpening your skills by reading, practicing or learning a new skill will pay dividends.

I am a huge advocate for personal development and figuring out ways to leverage it for your long term growth. There are many avenues that can be used to achieve and measure this. The TESTHEAD blog exists almost exclusively for this purpose for me. It’s my permanent record of what I commit to doing, and it’s a somewhat objective way to see how well I follow through on those commitments.

The two challenges that I see to personal development are:

– carving out the actual time to accomplish your goals

– making a meaningful accountability mechanism for achieving them.

Therefore, this workshop will be two-fold, with two specific suggestions for deliverables. One will be related to time, the other will be related to accountability.

Workshop #85: Set up a “Pomodoro” schedule, or some other way to specifically carve out time for professional development goals. Make very specific initiatives that you can tackle, and provide a way to summarize what you have learned. Utilize the power of the “Bold Boast” and get others involved in “keeping you honest”, such as a blog post series or a dedicated space with review permissions for others.

Time:

No matter how we want to look at it, time is the single commodity that we can neither hoard nor profligately destroy. It happens when it happens, and it is constant. We can’t bank it. We can’t sell it. We gan’t give it away. We can’t even really manage it. The only thing we can do with time is use it, and that comes with a hard truth. There is a finite amount of Time and Attention any of us can give. We all have the same 24 hours as everyone else. Certain things are non-negotiable. We have to breathe, we have to drink water, we have to eat, and we have to sleep. Everything else is a choice (and don’t say sleep is a choice; trust me, you will not function well for long if you do not get it).

This is all an elaborate way for me to be the master of the obvious; to give your time and attention to a goal, you have to willingly divert that time and attention from something else. Don’t talk to me about multi-tasking. It’s a myth beyond the trivial. Yes, you can have a TV program on in the background while you are surfing the net, I get that, but high quality, deep learning level initiatives require focused attention. Music in the background? OK, maybe… depends on what you’re doing ;).

My personal favorite way to carve out time is to use a Pomodoro system. For those not familiar, it’s a method where you set a timer and, while that timer runs, you commit 100% of your time and attention to a very specific task. The more specific, the better. I like using a little app called “Pomodairo“, which is an AIR app that runs on both my PC and my Mac. It also gives me some space to make notes and track sessions over time.

There’s lots of literature about the Pomodoro technique on the web, so I’ll leave it to you to research exactly how you may want to implement it, but I’m going to talk about two methods that I like to use. One is what I call the “Full Flavored” approach, and the other is something I stole from Merlin Mann that I refer to as the “Procrastination Dash“. When I do things I tend to enjoy doing, the ‘Full Flavored” version is what I use. When I’m working on things that are not so pleasant, I use the “Procrastination Dash”.

Full Flavored: this is a classic Pomodoro schedule, covering two hours.

– Set the active “on task” timer for 25 minutes.
– Make a very audible bell that rings when the “on task” time is over.
– Set a break time for five minutes. Likewise, set a very audible tone to tell when the break is over.
– Create four cycles for your Pomodoro.

Net result: four twenty-five minute blocks of time that are “on task”, with twenty minutes of “break time” (four five minute breaks).

This is what I usually use when I write blog posts, work on presentations, or want to make sure that I don’t get “too absorbed” in something.

Procrastination Dash: this is a modified Pomodoro schedule, covering one hour.

– Set the active “on task” time to ten minutes.
– Make a very audible bell that rings when the “on task” time is over.
– Set a break time for two minutes. Likewise, set a very audible tone to tell when the break is over.
– Create five cycles for your Pomodoro.

Net result is that you will have five ten minute blocks with five two minute breaks, or 50 minutes on task with ten minutes of break time.

This is my “irksome task” method, when I know I have to do something that I need to do, but I’m really not looking forward to doing it.

Given time and practice, don’t be surprised if you notice items you put on the “Prograstination Dash” pile start to make their way into ‘Full Flavored” sessions, because when you do this, onerous tasks either tend to go away completely, or they (over time) become easier to deal with, and therefore more engaging. Regardless of the method you choose, set the time, log the time, use the time, and finish what you start, as much as you can.

Accountability:

One of the things that prevents many of us from achieving a goal is the fact that there’s really no pressing need to achieve it. That’s one of the reasons “personal professional development” is called what it is. If my Director were to say “hey, we need to implement JMeter for performance testing, it needs to be online next week, and you are going to demo it for the entire company”, that’s plenty of external motivation. Net result, I’m very likely to hit that mark and do what’s necessary to be successful. Sometimes, we get those mandates. Those are the easy ones.

Most of the time, though, the areas we want to improve, we want to, but we don’t want to badly enough to really get us over the hurdles. The main reason for this? There’s no external motivator, and there’s no real urgency. It may be important, it may be valuable, but it may be somewhat unpleasant at first, and it may take a lot of time to get you to where you want to be. If you are a super self-motivated individual, this next suggestion may not do much for you. For others, and especially myself, it works wonders.

The “Bold Boast” is exactly what it sounds like. It’s me declaring I will do something, doing so publicly, and setting up prominent (and very public) reminders of what I am doing, and why I am doing it. This series of posts about the “99 Things” eBook is the epitome of a Bold Boast. I announced to the virtual world, via my blog, that I was going to create a “workshop” for each of the 99 entries. I blogged I would do it, tweeted I would do it, I posted on my Facebook page I would do it, and I posted to Google+ that I would do it.

Why on Earth would I do such a thing?

Because doing this serves two purposes. First, it puts the world on notice that I’m going to do something. Second, it puts me on notice that I am “risking my reputation” if I don’t follow through. The net result, almost universally, is that I follow through… at least somewhat. Many initiatives I have carried all the way to completion. Some initiatives I’ve gotten a certain distance, and then found I was stuck, or circumstance beyond my control prevented me from moving further at that point in time. Sometimes, we can make so many consecutive bold boasts that we can lose track… and so does everyone else. Therefore, use this approach sparingly, for when you really want to tackle something that would otherwise be intimidating. The tradeoff is your fear of failure vs. the value of your online reputation. For some, that’s not enough motivation. For me, personally, it’s the best incentive I can use on myself !

Bottom Line:

Our time and attention is the most valuable thing we possess, and ultimately, we are the one’s responsible for deciding how it gets used. Will we have to sacrifice in other areas to do this? Sure. To borrow from Merlin Mann again (paraphrasing)… “we need to dedicate time to focus on the good stuff, and we need to dedicate attention to make sure that the stuff we focus on turns out to be good”. No matter what we opt to do to meet our personal and professional development goals, we have to realize it will take time, and often a significant amount of time. We either stretch that time out in duration, or we compress the time with intensity. Sometimes one will win out over the other, but balancing the two will be much better for us (both health-wise and sanity-wise) in the long run.

 

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